Thomas Jefferson II: Rights from a Creatorby Don Lacey on Oct. 22, 2012, under AZ Politics, Christianity, Creationism, Critical Thinking, Ethics, Faith, Freethought, God & Bible, Government, History, Logic, Question of the Day!, Quotations, Reason, Religion, Responsible Government, Separation of Church & State
Thomas Jefferson was a complex individual, who held many unconventional viewpoints and was quite radical in his day. This included some radical ideas in both the areas of government and religion. One of the most famous examples of this is the following and often quoted statement from the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The notion of rights from a creator is not “self-evident.” There is no universal belief in “the creator” and the concept of “unalienable rights.” Some Americans like to think the passage is an endorsement of their god despite Jefferson’s criticism of the Christian God (see part 1). Some claim that it is a sign that the founders favored some sort of theocracy which is a proposal that Jefferson fought in his day.
Recognizing that the Declaration of Independence was first and foremost a collection of grievances designed to justify the thirteen colonies’ rejection of British rule the above passage was a philosophical short cut to introduce the type of rights Jefferson favored. After all, it would probably have made for a less powerful and much lengthier piece had the declaration included a more thorough philosophical account of rights. By stating that rights were granted by a creator, Jefferson was able to keep this part of the argument brief and go straight to his grievances with the British Empire.
Most evidence indicates Jefferson did not believe in a god which took an interest in human affairs. There is no evidence that humans have a creator. There is no evidence that a creator is concerned about human affairs let alone endows rights upon us.
Furthermore, despite Jefferson’s claim to the contrary the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are anything but inalienable. The history of humanity is filled with cases of people being robbed of their lives, liberty, and ability to pursue happiness by individuals and governments. A good case could be made that Jefferson was saying these rights should be inalienable. This seems likely but it would be a huge mistake for him to say that they are inalienable if he meant that they should be. A man of his brilliance should not make such a sloppy mistake of confusing “is” with “ought” especially if he is going to make the claim that such a thing is self-evidently true.
In reality, our rights are anything but God given. For thousands of years the rights we now recognize were violated by murderers, slavery, genocides, tribal warfare, and absolutist states. Often gods were evoked to justify these inhumanities. Knowing this it would be absurd to say that a god gave Americans the rights we have while denying them to countless others in different times and places.
Rights are purely social constructions that cannot exist without some sort of system to enforce them whether that system is a state or a system of social norms and public pressure. In practice, we have rights only because there is a mechanism for enforcing them. In other words, you have rights only because others recognize the existence of such rights. They are not part of one’s nature nor are they handed down by a god or the universe. They are fragile social arrangements that are always under the threat of erosion. They are not natural in any meaningful sense of the word since they are very much a product of humans and constantly need to be enforced. Contrast this with actual natural laws such as gravity which needs no enforcing and exist whether people recognize them or not.
Knowing that our rights are mere fragile social institutions should be reason to value them more and be willing to fight for their protection. The American Revolution was ultimately about rights. Of course, our understanding of the rights we should and should not recognize has evolved since then. We no longer recognize the right to own slaves, for example.
The American Revolution was laudable but failed to abolish slavery. George Carlin presented a more accurate view of the nature of rights when he discussed the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II:
“Just when these American citizens needed their rights the most…their government took them away and rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away. They’re privileges. That’s all we’ve ever had in this country is a bill of TEMPORARY privileges.”